Cardini, 930 Wilshire Blvd., in the Los Angeles Hilton. (213) 227-3464. Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner Monday-Saturday. All major credit cards. Valet parking. Full bar. Jackets requested. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$100.
I did not expect Aunt Emily to like Cardini. She certainly hadn't liked much else about Los Angeles. Expecting days filled with sunshine, she did not take warmly to the weather. She found my house too cold, my stairs too long, my bathtub too short. A move to a hotel in Beverly Hills soothed her slightly, but there was still the matter of my car: Aunt Emily still considers four doors the absolute minimum for civilized locomotion. I heard about this every time I picked her up for dinner.
"But I don't know how you can even hear what I'm saying," she would shout, complaining about the noisiness of every place in which we ate. Perhaps she had a point there, but she was so generally critical that it got lost in the crowd. Chairs were too low, floors were too slick, service was too slow. There was either too much light (so unflattering), or too little. ("I can't read the menu," she complained at Trader Vic's, keeping the poor waiter hopping for candles until there was hardly room on the table for the food. If you're wondering why I took her to Trader Vic's in the first place, it was at her insistence; she remembered that it was where Queen Elizabeth II ate on her last visit to the United States.)
Nothing had been much of a success, and I did not have high hopes for Cardini, the Hilton's slick new restaurant. Sure enough, no sooner had we walked into the hotel's lobby than Aunt Emily remarked upon its shabbiness. It is not, I'll admit, the most attractive lobby in town, but I dreaded what she would say about the restaurant itself. We got to the door, and I braced myself. Aunt Emily took a long look down the first vista with its marble floors and its ultra-modern arches and columns, and I took a deep breath. "The lighting," she said, "is perfect." I exhaled. Then the maitre d' came dancing up and said a few soothing words. I relaxed; clearly this is a man who knows how to handle difficult old ladies. Summoning one of his minions, he eased Aunt Emily out of her coat, and then, instead of leading her to a table, took her on a little tour of his domain.
This was conducted in the hushed tones of a guide revealing the wonders of the cathedral at Chartres, and as he talked of echoing arches and domed ceilings that draw the gaze inward, I kept waiting for references to clerestory windows. These never came, but we did hear about the serenity of the grays and blues. Most normal people would instantly admit that the restaurant is beautiful; the extreme post-modernism of the decor put my aunt off, but after a time, even she admitted to being impressed.
By the time we were seated at the table, she was practically cooing. Complimentary hors d'oeuvres appeared on the table (little plates of ricotta-covered croutons and sauteed zucchini in good olive oil), and Aunt Emily munched them as she opened the menu. Ordering for her is easy; she invariably wants whatever is most expensive. But when her appetizer of marinated salmon with beluga caviar and zabaglione sauce arrived, she admitted to a slight feeling of disappointment. "So little caviar!" she sniffed, poking at a few little dabs stuck onto a bit of pastry. She admitted that she would have been better off with my involtini di melanzane al formaggio, delightful slices of eggplant wrapped around goat cheese, even if it did cost $8 less.
The pasta course was more successful. Aunt Emily had opted for the risotto with scallops. The inside kernel of each grain of rice was still slightly al dente while the outside had melted into perfect creaminess. I had an equally impressive dish, a special of little hand-filled pillows of pasta in a bright tomato sauce. "And the service is so good," Aunt Emily said, beaming as the waiters began trundling a cart over to the table to serve the next course.
Working over a small burner they juggled gleaming copper pans and deftly carved her rack of lamb. This was no small production, for the rack contained no fewer than six chops, garnished with mostarda and rosemary-scented potatoes. "All for me?" Aunt Emily said happily. I was a lot less content with my sea bass with eggplant, tomato and truffle sauce; it was little more than a sadly overcooked piece of fish.
Did Aunt Emily want dessert? She looked at a tray covered with gorgeous pastries wrapped in ribbons and said, "How can I resist?" She opted for a wonderful Napoleon, while I was left to play with a very disappointing lemon meringue tart.
When the check came Aunt Emily was still enthusing about the quality of the restaurant. "This is the first really good restaurant you've brought me to," she said. I could not help wondering if she would have been quite so delighted if she had been the one paying the substantial bill.